The News Media’s Troubled Relationship with Canadian Women

by | October 31, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

Jarrah Hodge at the Women's Forum 2013 podiumby Jarrah Hodge

I had the honour of speaking at Niki Ashton’s second Women’s Forum des Femmes in Ottawa on Tuesday. I was part of an afternoon session on inequality in the media and was tasked with providing a big picture look at some overarching problems.

Rabble supported the forum and has posted audio of much of the day. I’m embedding the audio of my presentation in case anyone would like to listen to the entire thing, but I’ll also summarize below.

My talk was entitled “The News Media’s Troubled Relationship with Canadian Women”. I started off talking about a study that came out earlier this year from the UK, which found that Canadian women (as well as women in the other countries surveyed) consumed less news and were therefore less informed than Canadian men.

I pointed out the important critiques raised at that time by Equal Voice, which argued the study doesn’t necessarily capture engagement, only knowledge of specific “hard news” facts. But I also noted quotes from some reporters and commentators speculating on the study, including these:

Margaret Wente: “Men keep track of batting averages. Women keep track of weddings. Men are interested in facts, systems, sports, competition, status and keeping score. They use the common ground of sports and politics to bond with other men. Women are interested in relationships, gossip, health, education and their kids. They use the common ground of social information and mutual support to bond with other women.”

Shelley Fralic: “On the day the women-versus-news study was widely reported, the four newspapers in my purview — The Vancouver, Sun, The Province, National Post and The Globe and Mail — provided a glaring example of that masculine point of view, a veritable font of off-putting language, with headline after headline shrieking words like bomb, terrorism, plot, death, radicalization, ultimatum, defiant, pariah, risk, reforms, protests, shocking, target, hate-filled, killing, thwarted, turf, showdown, damage, embattled, savagery, casualties, battle, crisis, sex offences.” (I did note that other than this quote, the rest of the article was ok)

It won’t surprise you I don’t think the problem is women being too preoccupied with wedding news to pay attention. Nor do I think women can’t handle words like “death” and “reforms” (try writing headlines on almost anything without using words in Fralic’s list and you end up with something like “Local Man Gets Bad Boo Boo after Not Nice Encounter With Bus”).

But if women are tuning out the news, maybe part of it is they aren’t being well-represented. As the Vancouver Observer pointed out, women still aren’t equally represented in management of our major media corporations. And 2011 research found women who reach the upper levels are still paid less.

That may or may not be related to the fact that women still don’t get quoted in the news as much as men. Part of this is due to pressures to cut-costs and meet the demands of a new reading public that wants news online and up-to-the minute. This means it’s tempting for reporters to turn to the same sources again and again to save time, even if it’s the same pool of men.

But that doesn’t explain why, when women are quoted, it’s often in different contexts. For example, a 2012 report by Guardian editor Jane Martinson found within the context of front-page newspaper and tabloid stories in Britain, 79% of women were referred to as “victims”, while three-quarters of men were interviewed in the role of “expert”.

Three particular areas of problematic coverage I singled out were women in politics, women in sports, and violence against women.

Screen capture of David Schreck on CTVWomen in Politics

On this topic, I looked at how the media covers women politicians (focusing on appearance, continuing sexist narratives), and mentioned in particular the incident with New Democrat pundit David Schreck critiquing Premier Christy Clark’s cleavage. What was almost worse than the fact Schreck brought it up, I argued, was how the media pursued it, interviewed Schreck on it, and forced Christy Clark to respond (see appalling CTV headline “Clark’s Cleavage Spurs Tempest in a C-Cup”, which provoked big groans from the Women’s Forum audience).

And let’s not forget the Toronto Sun’s musings on “Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Softer Summer Image”:

There’s been a bare arm here, a glimpse of thigh there. Little by little, there’s been a transformation. Kathleen Wynne is slowly emerging from a severe pant suit chrysalis and turning into a giddy, girly butterfly.

This kind of media coverage is especially disconcerting when you look at the results of Name It, Change It’s research that showed media mentioning women’s candidates’ appearance – even positively – hurts their electoral chances.

Another problem Canada’s mainstream news media has around women in politics is a serious lack of women commentators. There are few women pundits (high five to Chantal Hebert) and the ones there are are almost always white (as are the men).

Women in Sports

When looking at media coverage of women in sports, the biggest problem is that there usually isn’t any. Unfortunately, I didn’t have Canadian research on this but I referenced a 2009 study out of USC and Perdue looking at TV sports news and highlights coverage, and I’m sure Canada’s situation is very similar. The study found men’s sports got 96% of the TV sports news and highlights coverage, while women’s sports got only 1.6% (the rest was co-ed sports coverage). In the ESPN scrolling sports ticker, men’s sports accounted for 96.4% of the stories mentioned.

When women were mentioned it was often as wives, mothers or girlfriends, not athletes. Study authors Michael A. Messner and Cheryl Cooky state:

“A foundational assumption of those who create programming for men on programs like SportsCenter seems to be that men want to think of women as sexual objects of desire, or perhaps as mothers, but not as powerful, competitive athletes. This is a questionable assumption.”

At this point I brought it back to Canada, where this assumption is clearly at work in marketing TSN shows like Mike Richards in the Morning:

“Can you imagine being the women who actually work with him? Are you actually expected to look lustily after him as he walks down the hall first thing in the morning because he’s so manscaped?” I asked.

Violence Against Women

The topic that really got me riled up as I prepped for the talk was the media’s coverage of violence against women. One of the biggest problems is the violence that is drastically under-reported: violence against trans women, women of colour, and indigenous women; and elder abuse. I forgot to mention in the talk but tweeted after that when violence against trans women is reported in mainstream media, the media often misgenders the victim, and this is a big problem (for more on why, and how these crimes should be reported, see this resource from GLAAD).

Cover of Vancouver Province Newspaper with headline "Female Students Fear the Night"

Cover of the Province newspaper covering sexual assaults at UBC

The violence that mostly gets reported is violence against middle-class white women, committed by strangers. But there are problems even with the way the media reports this. The recent spate of sexual assaults at my alma mater, UBC, are a prime example. They reinforce a perception of “stranger danger”, when in reality they are still more likely to be attacked by an acquaintance.

They also reinforce victim-blaming narratives that put pressure on women to change their behaviour, instead of placing blame directly on offenders. As U of A Women’s and Gender Studies Chair Lise Gotell told the Huffington Post:

“We are taught to be fearful of male violence, we are warned constantly from the time we’re little girls,” she said in a phone interview. To issue, ‘Women please go out in pairs,’ does nothing to actually increase women’s safety, but instead it constrains women’s mobility.”

The National Post’s Sarah Boesveld would have you believe the idea of “victim blaming” is something invented by feminists to cause fear and stop us from really discussing “all the nuances around rape and sexual assault”:

›“Rape is a problem – on this we can all agree. But for an issue rife with shades of grey and multiple variables, sex attacks are often treated as a black and white issue in which one side is right and the other is wrong.”
But I can’t think of a single other crime that someone would feel okay saying that about. And it’s ludicrous to blame feminists for making women fearful. It’s attacks that make women fearful, reinforced by police announcements and media coverage that issue warnings about what women should or should not wear, and where and when and how they should or should not walk. Feminists look for an end to fear. We call for women to band together and “take back the night”.
And victim-blaming is something that really happens, as one of the women recently attacked at UBC told the student newspaper:
“Imagine sitting in class and having the professor bring up your sexual assault, I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Yo, this is my story. Who are you to talk about how I could have prevented this? Don’t I have the right to walk home alone?”
Now, of course some outlets do an okay job reporting these issues at times, but it feels like it’s easier to find examples of the bad, and the really good is really rare.
What Can We Do?

Unfortunately I ran out of time and we didn’t get to spend as much time discussing this as I would’ve liked. But I did suggest a few steps people should take, including educating themselves (I prepped a handout of media literacy resources to help with this, which you can find here); talking to friends and family; tell the media what needs to change by sending emails, tweets, or letters to the editor; supporting public broadcasting and independent media that shares our values; and making our own media. It’s our media and I believe we can change it, one step at a time.

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